2292 MetroCenter Blvd.
11 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Thurs.; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Fri.-Sat.; noon-6 p.m. Sun.
Price range: $-$$
My uncle likes to tell people he taught us everything we know about barbecue, but not everything he knows," says Tony Neely, owner and operator of Neely's Bar-B-Que. For Nashvillians craving a taste of Memphis barbecue, that is very good news indeed. Uncle Jim Neely is the owner of Interstate BBQ, one of the most popular barbecue joints in Memphis, a city that claims to be "Pork Barbecue Capital of the World."
The Neelys didn't set out to be in the food business; Jim had a successful career in the insurance industry when he inexplicably got a hankering to start smoking pork shoulder. Tony Neely remembers thinking his father's brother had gone off the deep end, but when Uncle Jim needed some help and Tony was kicking around after college, he figured what the heck. The restaurant was very successful, but splitting profits between two families didn't make much business sense, so in 1988, with their uncle's blessing, Tony and his three brothers opened up their own place under their own name. In 1992, they faced the same challenge of too many chiefs in one teepee, so they opened a second location. There are now three Neely's locations in Memphis, and they also have a concession stand at Memphis Grizzlies games.
A few years ago, Tony Neely heard opportunity calling from Music City. "I've always liked Nashville," he explains. "I was going through a divorce, and it seemed like the right time to make a change." Real estate agents showed him properties in Cool Springs and along West End that were way beyond what a small, independent barbecue restaurant could hope to afford. One day, driving around town, he spotted a closed fast-food store on Nolensville Road and signed a lease.
While Neely's is a big name in Memphis, and the Neely brothers have a long-standing friendship with Today show weatherman/personality Al Roker (resulting in numerous appearances on the program), pushing pork in the Nashville market proved challenging, particularly smack in the middle a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood. "Honestly, I didn't know Nashville that well when I signed the lease," Tony says. "I knew that the intersections of Nolensville Road and Harding Place, and Nolensville and Thompson Lane were two of the busiest, and it helped to be located between them. But the people who live in this area naturally frequent the Hispanic restaurants around here, so we had to work hard to get our name out there to get people to come to us, to be a destination."
The Nolensville Road store did well and catering business was steady, but when the lease on the building came up several months ago, Tony decided the time was right for another move and began looking around town again.
Remember Fountain Square, the spectacular retail-development failure known as the Mistake on the Lake? Tony, a three-year resident, lacked that daunting frame of reference, so when he was shown the former Hooter's location on MetroCenter Boulevard, what he saw was a much bigger space with equipment, decor and furnishings that easily lent themselves to a barbecue joint, great sightlines for multiple televisions, windows all along one wall, an outdoor covered patio and an open deck with a view of the Titans training facility just across the lake. He saw the many cars coming to work daily at MetroCenter's office park, he knew the Tennessee Lottery had just leased space there, and he was confident that the property's owners were making slow but steady progress in redeveloping the complex. All in all, he felt pretty good about the potential; three months ago, Neely's Bar-B-Que opened next to Watkins College of Art and Design (itself housed in the site of the former Fountain Square movie theater).
Not 20 feet inside the front door of Neely's is a large sink. For a moment, you might wonder if Tony's mama is going to poke her head out of the kitchen and tell you to wash up before dinner. But just a couple of minutes into our meal, the sink's purposeand necessitybecame obvious as the thick, tangy sauce (adapted from Jim Neely's original recipe) slathered over the pork, beef and chicken soon covered our fingers and faces. Neely's food is definitely not anything you'd eat while driving a car, but given the comfortable ambiance and friendly staff of this casual restaurant, with roadhouse blues providing the soundtrack, I can't think of any reason you wouldn't want to grab a seat and stay awhile.
The menu is posted over the counter, which is where you place and pay for your order. Anyone familiar with Memphis barbecue restaurants will recognize the standard meat choices: pulled or chopped pork, sliced or chopped beef, pork or beef ribs, turkey and chicken. On the side, Neely's sticks with the standards: slaw, fries, potato salad and barbecue beans. And then there's the barbecue salad, barbecue spaghetti and the barbecue nachos. "You know, when you're competing with 200 other barbecue restaurants, you've got to come up with a couple of things that are unique to your place," Neely says. "We took my mother's spaghetti recipe and added pork and barbecue sauce. It's very popular in Memphis." While I can't say I would order it again, I understand its appeal as a one-bowl meal, similar to Cincinnati chili. The barbecue nachos are reportedly the top concession item at Grizzlies games, and I'm thinkingand so is Tonythat they would score just as well at the GEC and the Coliseum, in place of those god-awful stale chips and processed cheese dip.
Tony Neely's true artistry is in his pulled pork sandwiches and pork ribs, both infused with smoky hickory wood flavor, slow-cooked to melt-in-the-mouth tenderness, and juicy, sloppy, messy wet with that great sauce. (Ribs can also be ordered dry, cooked with a spice rub, in the Rendezvous tradition.) In Nashville, 'cue sandwiches are typically topped with dill pickle slices, but in Memphis, it's a mound of coleslaw, which delivers a great balance of hot and cool, with a bit of cabbage crunch. It won't cost you much ($2.19) to try the bologna sandwich; thick-sliced from the stick, fried, covered with sauce, topped with slaw and slapped on a bun, it's a guilty indulgence that is unexpectedly good.
Soft drinks, tea and cold beer are the beverage options; sandwiches are served with slaw, platters with two sides and bread. Family packs and meats by the pound are available to go for summer picnics or lake outings. Family reunions would be well-served with the large-group party packs (15-person minimum) or full-service catering (100-person minimum, off-site). Neely says they have been busy this wedding season with rehearsal dinners. He invites gridiron fans who come out that way to catch a practice at the Titans training camp to stop by and grab some pork with their pigskin. And while they are not on the menu, the lake's massive population of turtles are a bonus attraction for the kids at Neely's; throw a piece of bun into the water and watch the feeding frenzy that ensues. Large catfish and ducks also jump into the fray.
Tennessee's two biggest cities have long maintained a rivalry in everything from sports to politics, but Memphis proudly claims the title of barbecue capital of the state. Thanks to Tony Neelyand his Uncle JimNashvillians only have to drive as far as MetroCenter to find out why.